Compact SUV models are providing more active safety equipment than ever before, and the Toyota RAV4 is the latest to score an upgrade.
As the flagship of the Japanese compact SUV lineup, the Toyota RAV4 Cruiser costs $47,290 with a 2.5-litre petrol four-cylinder engine, or $50,790 for the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel of the same cylinder count as tested here.
Those prices are $1800 higher than they were last year, because the RAV4 Cruiser now gets a cross-traffic alert (when reversing out of a driveway it can detect cars unseen cars coming past parked cars), lane departure alert (which will bleep if you stray outside white lines) and automatic high-beam (which detects on-coming cars and lowers high-beam accordingly) as standard.
That is in addition to the blind-spot monitor, front and rear sensors, and a reversing camera (the latter of which is now standard across the range) already included.
However, two key rivals, the $46,890 Mitsubishi Outlander Aspire and $49,420 Mazda CX-5 Akera diesels, also include auto city-braking functions over the more expensive Toyota RAV4 Cruiser. The Outlander exclusively gets active cruise control, though, and the CX-5 Akera includes front parking sensors.
For the family car buyer who wants maximum safety equipment, all three flagship grades make sense. There’s also a good bit of luxury equipment included, with the RAV4 Cruiser featuring leather seat trim with front heating, sunroof, HID lights, and touchscreen satellite navigation with an 11-speaker JBL audio system including digital radio.
As with the Outlander, however, the RAV4 Cruiser only gets 18-inch alloy wheels and driver’s seat power adjustment, where even the cheaper $47,030 CX-5 Grand Tourer includes 19s and passenger seat power adjustment.
The Toyota’s cabin is larger than both the Mitsubishi’s and Mazda’s, though its room isn’t as intelligently utilised, and its dashboard ergonomics and quality of materials trail both significantly.
A blocky design suits the RAV’s offroader pretense, but hard and scratchy plastics, fake carbonfibre inserts on the power window controls and centre console, and some flimsy switchgear aren’t an ideal match for a model that will cost almost $55K to driveaway.
Then there’s the random splattering of those controls – USB input, seat heating, lane departure warning, and the automatic’s eco and sport mode bizarrely grouped together below the climate controls; yet the hill descent control is put on the right side of the steering wheel near the starter button.
The stitched-leather-look strip across the dash is the highlight, but it sticks out on the passenger’s side, interfering with knee room for taller people. Just below it resides a large glovebox to match the generously sized centre console storage bin, while there are bottle holders in each door, but only two cupholders up front.
The touchscreen is high resolution (though it contrasts with a dotmatrix display underneath the speedometer), the app-style interface is simple enough to use and the JBL stereo certainly sounds premium, with fine clarity and volume without distortion. At 6.1-inches the screen is on the small side for the price, though, and there delayed responses to commands,and some functions – such as silencing the sat-nav lady’s voice – are buried in multiple commands.
Front seats that are well bolstered and supportive are matched by good visibility both out the front windows and looking behind to reverse park. Further back, a completely flat floor and plenty of distance between the rear bench and front seats also make for plenty of stretching room. Due to intrusive wheel arches, outside passengers sit unneccessarily inboard, though, putting the squeeze on shoulder room for a centre rider, and the seat itself is flat and thinly padded. There are also no rear air vents, though the CX-5 and Outlander also lack back-seat ventilation.
As the rear bench sits well clear of the floor, it takes just one lever for the base and backrest to drop completely flat. It is the smartest and simplest seat mechanism in the class, and helps further expand one of the largest cargo areas of any compact SUV (at 577 litres, or 506L with the $300-optional full-size spare tyre).
An automatic tailgate lifts to reveal a low loading lip (for ease of luggage-lifting) and a cargo cover that additionally includes a net (which can be raised to the roof to protect rear occupants’ heads from objects tumbling into the cabin). When not required, there’s a spot for the cargo cover to sit below the floor near the spare tyre – neat; clever.
Toyota charges $3500 in the RAV4 range to move from petrol to diesel power. In doing so you get a smaller engine – 2.2-litre down from 2.5L – but one with a turbocharger.
Power is down 22kW to 110kW (produced at a more relaxed 3600rpm, versus the petrol’s 6000rpm) but torque shifts up by 107Nm to 340Nm, and it comes online between 2000-2800rpm instead of around double that – 4100rpm.
Although relatively new to Australia, the diesel engine is old, having previously been used in the last-generation RAV4 in Europe. The figures it produces aren’t great for a diesel engine of that capacity, with some 2.0-litre turbo petrol engines (such as that in the Volkswagen Tiguan 155TSI) making much more power, and more torque.
The Outlander diesel delivers the same power from its same-size engine, but 20Nm more torque, while the CX-5 diesel (which utilises an extra turbocharger) makes 129kW and 420Nm.
Teamed with a six-speed auto, the RAV4 slurs along reasonably well, though its response its unremarkable (there is significant lag below 2000rpm) and when overtaking it is slow to rev and feels slow.
There’s a decent amount of diesel clatter at idle, though it smoothens out in the mid-range, only again becoming intrusive if the tachometer needle swings above 4000rpm.
Toyota claims economy of 6.5 litres per 100 kilometres in mixed conditions, 2L/100km better than the petrol RAV4, but inferior to the Outlander (5.8L/100km) and CX-5 (5.7L/100km). We achieved a decent 8.8L/100km in mixed conditions, with a best of 8.3L/100km.
For those set to tow, the RAV4 diesel doubled its braked towing capacity mid last year, from 500kg (set apparently because Australia is a high-temperature country) to 1000kg.
The RAV4 is competent on road, but no more. Its steering has a sizeable vacant patch just off centre that makes slight turns (such as a long radius curve on a freeway) a guessing game, yet it weights up as lock is wound on. It affords decent feel in tight bends, but is arguably too heavy for parking.
Although the Cruiser wears 18-inch alloys, the Dunlop rubber remains of the thick-sidewall variety that should help smooth out city bumps. Generally the ride quality is good, but the RAV4 can feel too firm when it jiggles over seemingly smooth arterial roads, and occasionally abrupt when reacting to larger impacts.
Front and rear suspension rates feel evenly matched, though, and the firmness contributes to reasonably solid handling characteristics; the Toyota feels planted, though it lacks the sort of balance and grip that makes the CX-5 such a delight to drive.
Add in cheap servicing ($130 per visit, though every 10,000km or six months rather than the usual 15,000km or 12 months) and, as ever, the Toyota RAV4 is a highly rational, roomy compact SUV option. It stands out in no single area, and doesn’t dip significantly in any, either, though the entry-level petrol models are more convincing value than the overpriced flagship diesel tested here.